The grey seal sightings just off the Cap de la Hève in Normandy never made it past a “cute curiosity” headline in the local news, although the magnificent creatures generally stayed further away from humans on this side of the Channel. What did make front pages of the papers, however, was that the wife of the youngest Le Havre municipal councillor had gone missing. The devastated husband bore his grief with exemplar dignity and everyone who knew them was shocked. Such a perfect couple!
Some time prior, she was sizing up her opened garderobe closet: “Which tie are you wearing? So we can match...” She asked him.
“None, it’s smart casual.”
“Oh. What dress should I put on, then?”
“The dark grey one would do. Don’t over-accessorize.” She sighed. It was better to ask now and not disappoint later. “When we get there, hon, just try to act normal. You know. Human. Make people talk about themselves, laugh at their jokes. Pretend you’re interested in their kids. Don’t say anything creepy. Mainstream. You can do it, for me, right?” The unspoken or else hung in the air. He used to like her strangeness back then when he fell for her because she was special, in a wild, free sort of way. What he ultimately seemed to want now was a mundane, subdued archetype of a wife. What kind of fairy-tale was this? At the apéro, he played out the charming husband to perfection.
He picked her up during his Erasmus in Aberdeen and married her in Paris. Bedazzling times they were. In Paris, she became someone else. They lived in the biggest room of a large apartment, shared with two other law students and, between the avant-garde theatre, played mostly through screaming dramatically on the stage while half-naked, and litres of booze and caffeine, she graduated in modern literature from la Sorbonne, where they had good cafeterias and dirt cheap tuition fees. Being “normal” didn’t sound that bad back then. It meant putting on purple lipstick and smacking a kiss on Baudelaire’s gravestone, among other things.
Just before finishing his masters, however, the husband successfully ran on The Republican’s list for the municipal election in his native Le Havre, Upper Normandy. And soon after, they moved there to start their “adult lives”. That brought grey days in a grey town… grey skies, grey houses under grey rain and the sound of grey waves upon the deserted grey pebble beach. Grey up there, grey down here, grey everywhere. On days like that – and there were many in between October and April – she would look out at the sea from the vantage point of their house in Sainte-Adresse, Le Havre’s upscale neighbourhood, and the sight filled her with a distant longing. She was missing something and she could not quite put her finger on what it was. Not any longer.
“Do you have light?” A woman, just about her own age, joined her at the smoker’s corner, as she was firing up her second cigarette. The old port basin in front of Docks Vauban, a brand new shopping centre built from refurbished red-brick warehouses, was dotted white with small boats and floating seagulls. Peaceful. A rare, bright day. She was taking a break from the family winter sales spree under the pretext of looking for underwear. She did not mind grown-up company, though. She held out her matchbox. The other woman did not comment on the flagrant absence of a lighter, much to her relief.
“Thanks.” The woman said and then continued: “Couldn’t bear the screaming any longer...”
She knowingly grunted in response, meeting the other woman’s eyes. She froze. The sea was in them. That mesmerizing deep blue-green of tropical waters, calming and inviting. She glanced at the large paper bag at the other woman’s feet. It was filled with a coat. Neatly folded. Fur coat. Greyish brown. Tears sparkled at the tips of her eyelashes. Could it be? She blinked. And blinked again. And again. Then the illusion broke. It was just a woman who had bought a new coat and asked her for light. She trembled.
“You all right?” said the other one.
“Yup. Just tired.” She dared not continue, knowing her voice would break. She chain-lit another cigarette and the other woman did the same. They smoked in silence.
“I should be going now. Whatever it is, hang in there.” The other one dumped the butt into the ashtray and was about to set off.
“Pardon me for saying it, but you seem a mess.”
With that, the other one departed. The husband and kids stepped out of the big sliding glass doors seconds later.
“Knew we’d find you here and not shopping. Who was that woman? You know her?”
“No. She just asked for light. We talked for a bit. Mostly clothes and kids. Small talk.”
“Good. Good.” He paused: “You’re learning.”
The winter before that, on New Year’s Day, she was making her resolution. The same one she’d been making for so many, maybe too many, years before that: To carry on. Even her therapist suggested it.
“It can’t be that bad. You need to find a way to work around your husband. Maybe a bit more effort, hein? Try not to provoke him so often. Think about how you can improve. Think about the children too; family is a very precious thing...”
The therapist must have been deaf to all of her “I-am-being-abused-by-my-husband”. Or did a pinch of emotional blackmail here and a little gaslighting there not really count? (“Anyway, it’s not that he’s beating you bloody, non?”) After all, what could she know; her not being human and all that. Maybe it was really just a sign of his affection for her, as he used to say. Like when he took her… but that’s how it was in fairy tales, right? A man falls in love with a selkie, so he steals her coat to prove it and she is bound to live with him happily ever after. Unless he loses possession of her sealskin; then she cannot do otherwise but to flee in it, having remembered her true nature. And somehow it is his fault that she found it, because he did not manage to hold onto his love. So that was what her husband was doing. Holding onto his love. Preventing her from ruining her present human happiness with their beautiful family by mentally dissecting the brains and guts out of her so she would not look for her skin. Because if she found it, she would have no other choice but to do what was in her nature; run away. She was so numbed by then that she didn’t realize how absurd this sounded.
Making himself seen the good Catholic he was, the husband used to go to mass at Notre-Dame des Flots, a small chapel near their home. Her job was to take the kids to the Sunday school at St. Joseph’s downtown. That way their neighbours and fellow parishioners never saw that she actually did not attend church.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral was a monumental piece of 1950s post-war architecture; a crowning gem in Perret’s reconstruction of the raided old town. Overtopping the beach-side apartments, like an odd beacon of grey concrete with its massive octagonal tower, it stood so high it almost pierced the low Normandy skies. She never liked even just entering churches and she made no exception here, though St. Joseph seemed somehow more passable than others. The kids went off to their class; the doors slammed.
Normally, she would have taken a book and gone for a quiet read-in at the bakery around the corner. Coffee and lemon tart have remained her thing, ever since Paris. But today she went down to the beach. It was deserted. Not one surfer braved the winter waters, for a mother of all gales was upon the coast. The large, almost white pebbles crunched beneath her soles. The gulls were crying. Curious. She realized only then that their voices were different from those in good ol’ Aiberdeen. Waves crashed against the mildly sloped shore with increasing strength, rattling the pebbles. Ravaging forces of nature; the roaring voice of the water. Bearing a whisper with it. Inviting. Calling. Calling her. Calling her back. A whirlwind of emotions took hold of her. She’d heard this voice before when at yore it gave her kin their name. A godly voice. A motherly voice. “You belong with the sea,” it seemed to say. As suddenly as it came, it died away in the sounds of approaching storm.
She was late picking up the kids, so they came home late. That is, later than they should have. She earned a fair amount of “You-know-I-hate-when-you-do-this” and “I-shout-because-I-care”s. But, just this day, she could not care less.
“Maman, maman, can I wear this for mardi gras this year? Granny gave it to me. Look! Look! It is almost like a bear’s, isn’t it?” Her eldest came running down the corridor with a thick fur coat in his hands.
“I know it’s not a proper gift, just an old thing nobody wears now. I didn't even remember I had it. But he seemed to like it a lot, you see,” added apologetically the grandmother in question.
Lightning struck through her; she became dizzy. Fur. Coat. Speckled grey. Hers. Something snapped in her heart just then. Seeing how it was worn-out, slightly dusty, tattered. Like her. And suddenly, she knew. All this had been part of the husband's ploy. And a very good one; having hid her sealskin here in his mother’s ancestral house at Yvetot, which was far from the sea, far from the Seine even, he had managed to keep her away from the skin while keeping them both, the skin and her, his. But it hadn't work out forever and a day, anyway; the selkie found the coat.
“Sure, darling. But if you want it, let’s bring it home with us. It would look rude to ask your grandmother to keep it for you here, at her place. What do you say?” She hated looking pushy, but the stakes were too high.
“Just don’t tell Daddy, ok? You know how obsessed he is with de-cluttering.”
“Yup. Merci-i-i, maman.”
It took all her strength to stay cool and only appear excited ever-so slightly, like a mother rejoicing in her child’s whims. Not like someone who just won their ticket to freedom.
Eyes wide-open, she was staring into the darkness, in the general direction of a ceiling she could not see, as the room was veiled in black-out curtains. She dared not to shuffle around too much; the husband was fast asleep, and she wanted him to stay that way.
She knew she had to move fast. If she wanted to make her move at all. Her heart was pounding painfully against her chest. She was terrified the husband would somehow find out even if her son kept his silence about the “gift from granny”. She did not trust herself, for she sensed that eventually, her nervousness and the guilt written all over her face would betray her. If she hesitated now, the husband would start to suspect something, his wife getting rebellious and funny lately. He was too good at reading her, the wide-open book she was for him. He would make the connection to her visit at Yvetot, sooner rather than later.
So, she stared and stared in silence. Petrified. He’ll know soon. He’ll find out. And then she’ll lose. Definitively. He will take it away again, not making any mistakes this time. He would… do… something. She wasn’t quite sure what, yet deep down, she sensed it would be… terrible. She felt his power tightening around her, a menacing, invisible net. Yet fragile at this point. She knew she had this one chance. She had to take it. She stared and stared some more into the darkness until the dawn mercifully came and she slept. Sore from the inner tension, exhausted. But hanging onto a thin thread of resolve.
She woke up only a couple of hours later, feeling like someone about to take a deep plunge into the abyss. She saw the kids off to school, donned her coat and vanished. Alone. It couldn't be helped. Unlike her, the children were human. Like in the fairy-tales.
The sea engulfed her with a cold, but soothing embrace. Washing away the stinging debris on her soul, purifying. The waters of the Channel tasted of freedom. Freedom. She savoured the long-lost sensation. But there was another one mixed with it as well. A feeling as if she was dragging an anchor with her. One that was getting heavier with her every thrust. She swam some leagues further north until she could not bear it any longer. She pulled herself out of the water at Étretat, beneath the famous white cliffs. She removed her skin and, wearing it like a blanket around her naked shoulders, she sat on the empty beach and wept. With her human eyes. She let her feet be caressed by the icy waves and, after a while, she began to tremble a little. At that moment, she considered going back. What if he really loved her? What if she was just an ungrateful wife and a bad mother? Doubt peppered with creeping self-hatred gnawed at her consciousness. She cried into the water. Listened numbly to the waves, shaking, wretched. Minutes passed. Even later, while she was gently plucking at her sealskin, another thought came to her. A memory. Of her life before. How she wanted it to be. She smiled a little then, just curving up the corners of her mouth, actually. She barked, saluting the sea. In her grey speckled coat, she set off into the vastness of the Atlantic.
Selkie stories are no good fairy-tales. They are stories about losers, who had to mould another living being into their image in order to be loved, taking away another’s past, present, and future. Selkie stories are no good fairy-tales. They are stories about winners who came close to losing absolutely everything.
Alexandra Haverská is a Czech speculative fiction writer of German origin living in Prague, Czech Republic, a city that breathes the fantastic. Her life-long friend is wanderlust; she is a social scientist by trade and in her free time, she covets historical fencing, modern dancing, playing ukulele and other whimsical muses. Her fiction has previously appeared in various Czech SF&F and horror magazines. This is her first story published in English.